Thursday, January 4, 2018

TFBT: Thucydides on the Trojan War

The Kosmos Society is welcome again Jeffrey Rusten of Cornell University, Department of Classics, for a CHS Online Open House on Thucydides on Early Greece and the Trojan War.  The event will be streamed live on Thursday, January 11, at 11 a.m. EST, and will be recorded.  You can view the event on the CHS YouTube channel.

For the Open House Professor Rusten invites us to think about and discuss the following questions:
·      How does Thucydides approach the Iliad and think it has historical value?
·      Is his analysis flawed in any way?
·      Is it anachronistic?
·      Is it in any way modern or “scientific”?

I would remind the reader that the Ancient Greeks thought of The Iliad as history.  It was used in court cases.  Thucydides seems to step back and forth across the line of it being fiction or not.  Some of his analysis conforms to similar discussions and his style and analysis is very similar to what I have seen modern scholars do.  He also makes the mistake occasionally of judging bronze age warriors and their civilization by “modern” standards. Specifics below.

 (1.1.2) “And (the Peloponnesian War) was in fact the largest mobilization by Greeks as well as a considerable number of non-Greeks, extending over virtually the entire population. (1.1.3) Preceding ones, including those of the more distant past, although impossible to determine clearly after so much time, were probably not important either as wars or anything else.” Weren’t the Persian Wars (499 – 449 BC) before the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC)?

1.2.5) “Attica on the other hand, because of its barrenness remained free from factions since the most distant past, and had a stable, unchanging population.”  Didn’t Athenians brag of being the only autochthonic population in Greece?

(1.3.1) “I think Greece’s past weakness is demonstrated especially by the fact that, prior to the Trojan War, Greece probably did not unite in any common venture.”  Theban Wars?

(1.8.1) “The island populations were pirates as well, evidently Carians and Phoenicians, because these had settled most of the islands. There is proof: when Delos was purified by the Athenians during this war and all the graves of the dead on the island were removed, more than half were revealed to be Carians  Interesting, have to learn more about the Carians.

1.9.1) “Agamemnon collected his expedition not so much as the leader of suitors constrained by oaths to Tyndareus in my opinion, but as the preeminently powerful man in Greece at that time;”  I thought that was what everyone thought.

(1.10.4) “He has written that out of 1200 ships those of the Boeotians had 120 men each, those of Philoctetes 50. In my opinion, he is showing the largest and smallest crews, since there is no mention in the Catalogue of Ships of the size of any other ships…(1.10.5) If one contemplates an average between the largest and the small ships it becomes clear that those who went were not many,  1200 x (120+50/2) = 102,000.  Hundred thousand plus fighting men seems like “many”.

(1.11.1) “The reason was not so much a lack of manpower as a lack of money. Because of inadequate provisioning they not only led too small a force to live off the land while fighting, but even when they had won a victory after landing (because otherwise they would not have built the fortification for their camp) they obviously were unable to use their full fighting strength, but took up farming in the Chersonnese and piracy…”  Well this is all wrong. Piracy is mentioned off-handedly throughout the epic and I don’t’ recall anything about farming.  Plus they were only three days from home.  T.’s statement is a famous problem for scholars, since In Iliad 7.382-482 this fortification was built only in the tenth year of the war, as the result not of a victory but a military setback.

(1.11.2) “they would easily have taken the city by winning an open battle … or else by blockading it with a siege they could have conquered Troy with even less time and trouble.”  Well there is a little armchair quarterbacking about the open battle strategy.  As to the blockade idea, this  is an example of the present judging the past by current standards, because it appears from the text of  The Iliad that siege-craft hadn’t been invented yet or that the Greeks had no experience with it.



  1. Bill,
    These specific points aside, it seems to me that you generally dislike Thucydides. Why?

  2. Maya, These specific points are the only ones I ever read so there is that,,. His disrespect of Homer and in ability to do simple math... oh, wait I am doing it again. Why do you think I disliked Thucydides immediately?


  3. Bill,

    I think that you are judging Thucydides by modern criteria, and even when he is like modern scholars, you make this sound like a flaw.

    I do not find in Thucydides any disrespect to Homer as a poet, just healthy scepticism in Homer as a historical source. Other epics (e.g. ours), when compared to the actual historical events, make the reader pull his hair. And although the Iliad is uncharacteristically accurate for the genre, we need not believe that the Trojan War was waged over "a girl", let alone that the gods quarreled and conspired on Olympus.

    About 1.2.5, the editor of my volume comments that Athenians preserved their Ionian dialect.

    I disagree about "armchair" - Thucydides may be wrong in his analysis of wars, but he has taken part in one.

  4. Maya,

    I like the idea that I am judging him by modern scholrly standards which is unfair because he is just in the process of creating him. But of course that was the assignment; to answer the four questions Rusten gave us. How would you answer them?


  5. "How does Thucydides approach the Iliad and think it has historical value? Is his analysis flawed in any way? Is it anachronistic? Is it in any way modern or “scientific”?"

    To start from the end, I think Thucydides is modern and "scientific", because he is always rational and never explains things away by the will of gods, though he frequently mentions that others do. To me, it is hard to believe that he and Xenophon, who relied on augury to make decisions about a military expedition and tried to become rich by burning a pig at night, belonged to the same culture, and Xenophon was the more recent of the two.

    Thucydides regarded the Iliad as a historical source, non-perfect but the best he had (or, more accurately, the only one). He tried hard to separate myth/legend from history, as we see in his discussion of Agamemnon.

    His analysis has flaws. You are correct to point at the calculus error. Of course, Thucydides didn't believe in the 1000+ ships more than we do, but when he started the thought experiment "would the expedition corpus be numerous if it were as Homer reports it", he had to carry it out accurately.

    About the occasions when Thucydides anachronistically judged Bronze Age events by Iron Age standards - I clear him because he hadn't a shread of Bronze Age evidence at his disposal. His earliest source, Homer, was also from the Iron Age. I've read scholars say that Homer's description of chariot warfare makes little sense, because at his time, it was remembered that chariots were used in battle, but nobody remembered how.